Richard Hamilton - Biography and Legacy
British Pop collage artist and painter
Biography of Richard Hamilton
Richard Hamilton was born into a working class family in Pimlico, London, where his father was a driver at a car dealership. As a child, Hamilton later recalled, "I suppose I was a misfit. I decided I was interested in drawing when I was 10. I saw a notice in the library advertising art classes. The teacher told me that he couldn't take me - these were adult classes, I was too young - but when he saw my drawing he told me that I might as well come back next week." A couple of years later, he remembers, he was producing "big charcoal drawings of the local down and outs." Although he never finished high school, Hamilton began attending evening art classes when he was 12 years old and was encouraged to apply to the Royal Academy. On the merit of these early pieces, he was accepted into the Royal Academy the age of 16. However, in 1940 the school shut because of the outbreak of World War II. Hamilton, too young to be enlisted to fight, spent the War making technical drawings.
In 1946 the school reopened, and Hamilton returned to the Royal Academy. He recalls, however, that by that time "it was run by a complete mad man, Sir Alfred Munnings, who used to walk about the place with a whip and jodhpurs. It was scary." Before long he was expelled for failing to comply with the school's regulations and for "not profiting from the instruction." The rescinding of his status as a student meant he was eligible to be called up for National Service; he was subsequently "dragged screaming" to join the Royal Engineers, where he served out his compulsory two years.
In 1948, he was accepted into the Slade School of Art, where he studied painting under William Coldstream. Within two years he was exhibiting his work at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in London, where he also designed an exhibition on Growth and Form in 1951, which was opened by Le Corbusier. During this period, Hamilton became friendly with many of the artists involved with the ICA at this point, most notably Eduardo Paolozzi. He was present at the meeting of the Independent Group in 1952 when Paolozzi showed some of his collages made using imagery from American magazine advertising. These very early Pop art works were to inspire Hamilton to take the movement further and to create the iconography of Pop art that subsequently became so famous.
In the 1950s Hamilton was a particularly important member of the Independent Group who met at the ICA in the 1950s. He took on a number of teaching posts, including at Central Saint Martins, London, and Kings College, Newcastle. In 1956, he was instrumental in defining the aims of "This is Tomorrow", the seminal exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery now considered the beginning of the British Pop art movement. A year later, Hamilton wrote down his interpretation of Pop, which was subsequently taken as the key definition: "Pop art is: Popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, and Big Business."
Following the acclaim surrounding "This is Tomorrow," Hamilton was offered a teaching position at the Royal Academy of Art, London. There he taught and encouraged artists including Peter Blake and David Hockney, who were to follow in his line of British Pop art.
Hamilton's wife, Terry, was killed in a car accident in 1962. Devastated by the loss, Hamilton traveled to the US in the hope of finding some distraction. He had become increasingly interested in the work of Marcel Duchamp, and he visited a large Duchamp retrospective in Pasadena. He met Duchamp there, and they struck up a friendship. In 1966, Hamilton organized the first significant retrospective of Duchamp's work in Europe at the Tate Gallery, London. He later described the world-famous artist as "the most charming person imaginable: kind and clever and witty. Eventually I became one of the family. His wife, Teeny, was fond of me. We were fully bonded."
Hamilton also played a major role in establishing the relationship between Pop art and the burgeoning British Pop music scene. Bryan Ferry, later the founder of Roxy Music, was one of his pupils in Newcastle. Through him he befriended Paul McCartney, who asked him to design the cover for the Beatles' White Album in 1968.
In the 1970s, Hamilton started a relationship with Rita Donagh, a painter whom he had taught in Newcastle. He later described her as "a favorite student of mine." His work began to focus on print-making processes and he also worked in collaboration with other artists, creating, for example, a series of works with the German artist Dieter Roth.
He also increasingly began to experiment with new technologies, using the tools of television and eventually computers to create works. In the 1980s, he was asked to be part of a BBC television series called "Painting with Light," which saw a series of artists use the technology of the Quantel Paintbox to create art. This was computer graphics software used in the television industry, and Hamilton continued to use it for the rest of the decade.
The same decade saw a new concern for the plight of Northern Ireland, and he made several large works depicting the Troubles. This was partly prompted by Rita Donagh's Irish heritage and connections, and they held a joint exhibition of their work in 1983. The couple finally married in 1991. He worked less productively in the last couple of decades of his life, but left behind a significant body of works when he died in 2011.
The Legacy of Richard Hamilton
Nearly every artist involved in the first wave of British Pop was shaped meaningfully by Hamilton's vision for the future of the movement. His impact on his British pupils Peter Blake and David Hockney is especially evident, but he also left his mark on the American Pop artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, whom he got to know and occasionally collaborated with when he visited the United States during the 1960s. His flair for public spectacle, genuine love of kitsch, and irreverent approach to cultural icons lives on in the work of Young British Artists of the 1990s, among them Damien Hirst, who describes Hamilton as "the greatest."